Facing benefit cutoff, jobless “99ers” organize

HAMDEN, Conn. – Holding her hand-made sign “My Mom Needs A Job,” eight-year old Tessa O’Connor stood on a snowbank in front of the CTWorks Jobs Center Friday, Feb. 4, with her mother and father and two dozen other unemployed workers and union supporters. 

“This is what the unemployed look like,” exclaimed spokesperson Dawn Bliesener, herself nearing 99 weeks on unemployment and about to be cut off of all benefits. “We do not sit around in hammocks, we are ready to take a job that is offered to us.” 

Bliesener opened this first press conference of the Jobs and Unemployed Committee with her own story. She said she has been looking for work since losing her job at HealthNet in 2009, and will exhaust her benefits in July.

“This is the face of unemployment: people who have lost their homes, their incomes, their livelihoods. I just got my last $400 worth of oil from fuel assistance. The temperature in my house is 60 degrees. My car is 13 years old. When these 99 weeks run out, what will happen to me?” she asked.

After a presentation by Art Perlo on the latest job figures, which were released that morning, other unemployed workers told their stories.

Tessa’s mother Beth O’Connor, who worked for AT&T for 13 years, was laid off more than two years ago due to outsourcing. After her benefits ran out, she finally found a job working 15 hours a week at minimum wage as a school lunch aide.

“I have a family and four children,” said O’Connor. After I was laid off and couldn’t find a job, we lost our house and filed for bankruptcy. We’ve moved twice in the last three years. Now, we live with my mother-in-law. I consider myself one of the lucky ones that have a family that can help. But I need a job to help support my family. “

Among those present in support were officers of the Communication Workers of America (CWA), who reported that AT&T had just announced more layoffs in Connecticut.

Alexandra Ferreira, nearing her 99-week cut-off of benefits, got applause when said, “It is the responsibility of our legislators to address the issue of unemployment and job creation. Our communities are already suffering and are in desperate need of relief. They bailed out Wall Street and gave the rich a free ride on paying their fair share of the tax burden. Did the unemployed create this mess? No, they did not.”

Perlo welcomed the drop in the national unemployment rate to 9.0 percent, announced by the U.S. Department of Labor, but he pointed out that the 36,000 jobs created in January is far less than the growth in the working-age population.

He cited federal and state sources showing that 37,000 Connecticut families have already used up their 99 weeks of unemployment benefits, with another 33,000 in the coming months. Official unemployment in Connecticut has more than doubled to about 170,000 since 2007, and there is no sign of improvement.

“There is a heavy impact on the entire state,” Perlo said. “Unemployment means less spending in local businesses, missed rent and mortgage payments leading to evictions and deteriorating neighborhoods, and less tax revenue. Unemployment also means increased demand for state and local government and non-profit services.”

Speaking on behalf of the New Haven Central Labor Council, Gwen Mills expressed appreciation for the testimonies. “The Labor Council is with you,” she said, noting if public workers and others getting laid off, the unemployed and those who have union jobs all join together then “that is the power that can win a change.”

At the committee meeting which planned the press conference, a former Winchester worker, laid off when the New Haven factory closed in 2007, summed up the situation: “I never had trouble finding a job in my life until now. My unemployment ran out at the start of 2009. I lost my house and I have so many bills I can’t pay. I’ve looked for industrial work but even tried door-to-door sales. Anything looks good now – which is probably where business likes it. Everyone’s so desperate they’ll take anything.”

Bliesener emphasized that the wave of unemployed exhausting their benefits is a crisis for the entire state, which demands emergency attention. She presented petitions addressed to the Connecticut Congressional delegation, calling for extension of unemployment insurance, renewal of federal aid to state and local governments to prevent more layoffs and cuts in services, and government action to create jobs.

Workers coming in and out of the Jobs Center stopped to listen to the press conference and some joined in while others signed the petition and took the information fliers.

The Jobs and Unemployed Committee was established to provide mutual support for unemployed workers, and to provide a place to organize for measures that will strengthen the economy. It meets every Thursday (weather permitting) at 5PM at the New Haven Peoples Center, 37 Howe Street, in New Haven. Call 203-624-8664 for more information.

Photo: The O’Connor family participated in a press conference Feb. 4 at the CTWorks Jobs Center in Hamden, Conn. Art Perlo/PW.



Joelle Fishman
Joelle Fishman

Joelle Fishman chairs the Connecticut Communist Party USA. She is a Commissioner on the City of New Haven Peace Commission, serves on the executive board of the Alliance of Retired Americans in Connecticut and is an active member of many economic rights and social justice organizations. She was a candidate for Congress from 1973 to 1982, maintaining minor-party ballot status for the Communist Party in Connecticut's Third Congressional District. As chair of the CPUSA Political Action Commission, she has played an active role in the broad labor and people's alliance that defeated the ultra-right in the 2008 elections and continues to mobilize for health care, worker rights and peace.